After the Chargers had lost their fourth straight game under new coach Anthony Lynn, no one was talking about the playoffs — at least not seriously.
Sure, there was a feeling of “we’re almost there” after a blocked kick stopped overtime from happening in Week 1, two missed field goals cost them a win in Week 2 and a deluge of interceptions ruined Week 3. Even after the Eagles picked up a two-point win in Week 4 that wasn’t quite that close, there was room for optimism.
But the playoffs? That seemed like a wild fantasy.
After going 3-1 in their next four games, the one loss coming after the team stood toe-to-toe with the defending Super Bowl champions, the Chargers still are below .500. And they’re still trying to overcome history that says virtually every team that starts 0-4 doesn’t make the postseason.
But, the way things have shaken out, the Chargers enter the second half of the season in striking distance.
“I like our chances. I’d like to be in a better position, but everything’s still in front of us,” Lynn said. “The whole division is still in front of us. We’re not out of this yet. Our guys understand that. The urgency that we have to have this second half, I think everyone’s on the same page.”
The playoff dreams have certainly been given a boost by the AFC West, which hasn’t lived up to the preseason hype as the best division in the NFL.
The Denver Broncos’ offense has been sunk by problems at quarterback and injuries at wide receiver and on the offensive line. The Oakland Raiders also have had injury issues and problems on the back end of their defense, which has given up more points than all but one AFC team, the Indianapolis Colts.
And the first-place Kansas City Chiefs, who looked unbeatable in the first quarter of the 16-game NFL season, suddenly look vulnerable, losing three of their last four.
All that has coincided with the Chargers gaining confidence on a weekly basis. They’re the only division team with a winning record over the last four games — the second quarter of their season, as Lynn calls it.
“I felt like when we got our first win, we all felt like we were still in it,” defensive tackle Brandon Mebane said. “It didn’t go the way we wanted it to go, but we’re in the third quarter of our season now. We’ll go from there.”
The road to the postseason won’t be easy.
Largely because of the 0-4 hole the team dug, playoff-prediction systems such as Football Outsiders’ give the team a slim chance to become the second to make the postseason after losing four to open the season. Football Outsiders gives the Chargers a 7.7% chance to make the playoffs, better odds than only Miami, Houston, Indianapolis and Cleveland.
Some projections, though, are more optimistic. The New York Times’ playoff simulator has the Chargers in the postseason in 15% of nearly 25,000 simulations. That number more than doubles if the Chargers can win in Jacksonville on Sunday and defeat Buffalo at home the following week, seemingly two tough but winnable games.
The team then takes on the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving, but the status of star running back Ezekiel Elliott is far from certain. He is still battling a six-game suspension for alleged domestic abuse, with the next possible update coming Thursday. A three-game winning streak would almost give the Chargers a 50-50 chance at the postseason, per the New York Times’ model.
When the Chargers were 0-4, it seemed as if the team would have to somehow successfully navigate an unpaved path through a dense forest, with nearly unmovable obstacles constantly in the way, and travel in total darkness.